The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 7, Number 5
Nov 1983


Conference on Book Theft

The front page of the September 28 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education carries a report of the Oberlin Conference on Theft, September 19-20. Sixty top library personnel from 18 research libraries, as well as book dealers and law enforcement officials, were invited to this conference. The advice they heard was bitter medicine: if rare-book thefts from college libraries are to be halted, in the words of reporter Beverly T. Watkins, the libraries "must take valuable books out of circulation and close their stacks, no matter how strong the objections of independent researchers, faculty members, and students." All rare books and manuscripts must be marked indelibly and ownership records kept; missing materials must be reported immediately to law enforcement personnel; and thieves caught in the act must be apprehended and prosecuted.

The last three steps are particularly important because an estimated 75% of rare book thieves are insiders, many of whom would not be excluded by closing the stacks. The design of libraries built in the last 20 years or so often makes the closing off of book storage areas impossible anyhow, according to one speaker. Even where the structure permits the closing of stacks, the implications and costs of such a step might be hard to face. College educational policies are closely integrated with the practice of allowing students free access to stacks, and the use of pages for retrieving materials would involve a large continuing expense. (Apparently none of the speakers compared this expense with the expense of permitting the theft to continue.)

Theft of rare books and manuscripts grew to be a major problem because of the recent demand for inflation-proof investments. Two years ago a computerized international register of missing books and manuscripts (BAMBAM: see AN March 1983, p. 9-10) was put into use, but has not been as useful as hoped because too few librarians are listing their missing books in it. Electronic detection systems have not been very effective either, so far.

Participants whose names may be familiar because of their previous involvement in one or another aspect of conservation are: Peter Hanff (Univ. of California, Berkeley), Lawrence W. Towner (President, Newberry Library), Terry Belanger (Asst. Dean, SLS, Columbia Univ.), and Samuel A. Streit (Brown Univ.). It is not known whether the proceedings will be published.

Prevention of theft has not been treated as a part of library or archival conservation in this country in recent

decades. Although logically it would seem that the most basic form of preservation is to hang onto the item, security work does call for a different kind of expertise and has usually been carried out by different specialists. The speakers at this conference, however, lead one to wonder whether security, like conservation, is not a "specialty" that must be shared to some extent by all of the people whose work (or pleasure) brings them in contact with the collection.

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